Ep. 77 Seth Moulton & Emily Cherniack: Servant Leaders & Power Politics

NICIE PANETTA: Hello there and welcome to another edition of The MidPod: The Midterms Podcast. I'm Nicie Panetta with Heather Atwood. We're continuing our post-election coverage, reflecting on our MidPod journey and what's ahead for the U.S. Congress. As Heather and I get ready to take a break and think about what's next for us, we have one big favor to ask you. Please please please complete our listener feedback survey. It will help us to plan what we do next. It's got just 10 questions and takes about three minutes to fill out. You can find the link on our home page, in our next newsletter, and on our social feeds. Thank you so much for letting us know what you think. We've long planned this week's conversation with our own member of Congress, Seth Moulton. A Democrat from the 6th District of Massachusetts, and Emily Cherniack of New Politics. Moulton and Cherniack, you may recall, inspired The MidPod with their complementary efforts to recruit Americans with national service backgrounds to run for Congress as Democrats. We wanted to hear their thoughts on this cycle and what more they have planned to promote national service and servant leadership in American politics. Now full disclosure I have been a supporter of Seth Moulton since his successful 2014 bid for Congress which began with an unusual primary challenge to the sitting Democratic incumbent.

NICIE: Heather and I have both donated to Moulton's campaigns and to the Serve America PAC that he organized to support Democratic veterans. But we had to add another topic to our agenda. Moulton is the leader of a group of Democrats who are publicly challenging the leadership of the Democratic caucus including Nancy Pelosi. The current group of House caucus leaders is all in their 70s and the Democrats unlike the Republicans have stuck to a seniority system for committee leadership that frustrates younger members who want to have more impact. It should be noted that the current system benefits several senior African-American members of the House including civil rights icon John Lewis. At least some of those members would have to be demoted from their current posts if the system were to change. Moulton has also argued that Democrats will struggle to win over voters in the middle of the country and in the middle of the political spectrum as long as coastal liberals dominate its leadership. But in this Year of the Woman, the push to unseat Pelosi has encountered some pretty serious blowback. So this is an episode about the importance of ideals like duty, sacrifice and service and the reality of power: getting it. Using it. Keeping it. Losing it. So on to the interview, alas Heather was out of town, but I sat down with Moulton and Cherniack in a local restaurant on Sunday, November 18th before a thank-you event for his supporters.

NICIE: You both know that you were the inspiration for our MidPod journey and Heather and I really can't thank you enough for that. There was a special breakfast maybe almost 18 months ago in Salem where we were we were kind of hatching this idea and Seth you gave a great talk and you mentioned that Mikie Sherrill was running in New Jersey 11, former Navy helicopter pilot and prosecutor with four kids and Heather and I walked out of that meeting just saying we need to meet her and then we had coffee with Emily. And Emily encouraged us to go for it. So thanks to you both. But it would be great to hear just a little bit about what the cycle has been like for you. Seth you started the Serve America PAC which is how you got to know Mikey. So tell us about Serve America and how it got started.

SETH MOULTON: We started Serve America to help get a new generation of leaders into Washington specifically service veterans, people who understand what public service is all about. And by the way that's not just military veterans it's people who have served in City Year and Peace Corps as well as the Marine Corps and Air Force. And our theory was that if we can get better leaders into Washington it will not only help take back the House for Democrats but it will also just improve Congress. We focused on Congress we've actually expanded beyond that now but our results were pretty amazing. Of the the majority that we won back a third of the seats are our candidates. Two thirds of the seats are endorsed candidates so we have a tight group of candidates we mentored very closely that literally make up a third of the more than the third actually of the new majority and a broader group that we've supported and mentored and these are amazing leaders they're people like Mikie Sherrill in New Jersey who you mentioned who is a Navy helicopter pilot had just won an amazing race challenging the chairman of House Appropriations one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington. And then there are also people like Amy McGrath who came so close but didn't win her race down in Kentucky. I'm confident that she will continue to serve the country so even though she lost this race she's going to continue serving I hope she runs again I think she can win that seat in 2020. But regardless of what she chooses to do she now has a bigger platform on which to serve.

NICIE: Now Emily's organization New Politics was what drew you to run for Congress. So Emily maybe you could say just a little bit about New Politics and––.

MOULTON: Let me just say quickly look it wasn't just New Politics that drew me to Congress. To be clear I would not be here without Emily Cherniack she was the person who called me when I was happily working in Texas. Like every aspiring Massachusetts politician right clearly not planning to run for Congress and said you should give this a shot, I naturally said no. But Emily is a very persistent woman and she made me realize that I missed serving. I missed the sense of purpose that I had when I was a Marine. And so she convinced me to get in. I just would not be here today without Emily Cherniack and New Politics.

NICIE: OK so Emily tell us about New Politics. Longtime listeners of The MidPod will remember you from early in the history of our show but it'd be great to hear from you sort of how it's evolved and how it's worked together with the Serve America movement that Seth has launched.

EMILY CHERNIACK: So I started New Politics really to change the kind of people that were in office and so much like Seth talked about people who have courage, integrity and empathy and have served our country and will put the country first. And so people like Seth who were are amazing leaders who would have never otherwise thought to get involved in politics. There are people like that out there that we need to continue to recruit and support. So our work is really about you know how do we help navigate the process for them and help them hire teams. And think about their strategy and fundraise and etc. And so we're really there to be a guide throughout the way and so Serve America has been an incredible partner and really has augmented these candidates and Seth has really been an incredible leader that without him many of them would not be running this cycle for Congress.

NICIE: Can we talk just a little bit about Seth about the kinds of resources how much money does Serve America raise for these candidates and what other resources did you get into place for them?

MOULTON: Well I mean at the end of the day we raised a lot of money. But it's so much more than that. I guess we were the third highest leadership PAC in the country after Steny Hoyer's and Kamala Harris'.

NICIE: Are we talking hundreds of thousands are we talking millions?

MOULTON: Millions millions so it a lot of work. Emily was a lot of help with this but it's so much more than that I mean what we were there to do is to establish this team of people running for Congress and the mentorship that I provided to the candidates that our teams our staffs provided to their teams. That's really what brought this all together. We did things like take a group of candidates down to the border to understand the immigration crisis and turn an issue that Democrats were running away from in this election into an issue that our candidates could actually run on. I was down campaigning for Amy in Kentucky and looked up. I was sitting at I was getting lunch in a bar and I looked up and saw myself on TV and I realized Wow That's Amy running an ad on immigration. She's actually winning on this issue in a really conservative part of the country. That's because she went down and spent two days at the border really got into the crisis didn't just go down to do a press conference. She went down to understand it. We went to Mexico. We spent time in Juarez. We spent time in El Paso and she came back and said this is how we're going to solve this issue. That's the kind of leadership I'm seeing in this new generation of Americans.

NICIE: And what about other sort of special moments from the campaign. This was a remarkable year in the House with so many new faces winning their races. Do you have any other favorite moments from this cycle?

CHERNIACK: You know I think what's interesting and Seth talks about this the team and the cohort that was created with these service veterans so on election night Mikie Sherrill was not asking did the Democrats take back the House like how many blue seats were flipped. You know she kept asking how are my how are the other service candidates doing. Right. How my friends doing because they had sort of built a community of people and so they were you know all connected and were excited to kind of serve together in Congress. I think that's a really special thing that doesn't happen in the usual election cycle.

NICIE: The whole theory of servant leadership is a bit of a theory in some ways at this point. But now you've gotten a lot of folks elected how will you measure whether they actually do what we hope they'll do which is help heal some of the divides in our politics and put country over party?

MOULTON: Well and I'd say part of doing that is being willing to take on the tough issues of the day it's being willing to take on immigration not run away from it but to say this is a problem that we need to fix. It's being willing to take on the Republican tax cut. I mean how how do we fix the massive budget deficit that the Republicans have created that's going to hurt our kids it's going to hurt our national defense it's going to hurt our schools. But of course it's hard because tax cuts are popular and the Republicans took an easy and easy route there. So what I want to see is leaders who have the courage to really tackle these great issues of the day and to do so in an inclusive bipartisan way a way that respects the amazing progressive voice in our Democratic Party but also reaches out to Republicans and recognizes that a lot of Americans are in the middle and feel disillusioned by both parties and what they want is leaders who can bring them together.

NICIE: What are your thoughts Emily measuring success?

CHERNIACK: I mean I think that you know kind of echoing Seth but you know I think looking at Seth as an example. He's a very effective legislator. So I think a lot of people know him from the outside in terms of Serve America and what he's been doing with candidates but the last legislative term I think there were about 85 95 bills that were passed and 11 were written by Democrats and Seth authored two of the 11. You know that's significant for someone who is a sophomore and in Congress. So I think it just demonstrates that not only are these leaders about country first but they're effective at problem solving and getting things done.

NICIE: Seth you are very much out there right now in terms of the challenge to Leader Pelosi's bid for Speaker. And I'm wondering in the context of this strong argument that you're making for bipartisanship for people coming together finding compromise getting things done. How does that inform the approach you're taking which seems pretty no holds barred?

MOULTON: Well this is of course much bigger than than one person I'm calling for a whole new generation of leadership in our party. I'm not supporting the second in line Steny Hoyer either. He's a nice guy. So so is Leader Pelosi. But this is really about giving voice to the call for change in this election. People across this country voted for change. And let's look at the amazing people who were elected. Record numbers of women more veterans than we've seen in a generation. People of Color, LGBTQ candidates and so many people brought diversity and new voices to this party. And if we answer that call for change from the American people by reinstalling the same status quo establishment leadership that we've had in place for over a decade then I think we really fail as a party. So the other thing we fail to do by the way is keep these freshmen in office because so many of them ran on a promise not to vote for this status quo leadership and I think it's up to us incumbents to actually stand up for these freshmen and say to Abigail Spanberger to Mikie Sherrill to Elissa Slotkin and all of whom won their elections by promising not to vote for leader Pelosi that we are going to bring new leadership to this party.

NICIE: And there are some who have a somewhat different interpretation of the results of this election which is that actually the key to winning back the House was the strategy to run really on health care and the protections provided by Obamacare which so many Americans have found to be quite quite valuable and you could almost argue that Speaker Pelosi and others back in the day took that tough vote because it was the right thing to do for the country to make some progress on this vital issue. And it paid off this year. What's your reaction to that?

MOULTON: Oh I agree. I give Leader Pelosi all the credit in the world for the work she did on the Affordable Care Act that was a great achievement 10 years ago. But this is a new day and we need leadership that takes us to the future. I want leaders that Americans look to and say that's the future of the Democratic Party. That's the future of our country. And nobody looks at our leadership right now and says that. So we want to answer the call of the American people that's why the majority of Democrats support this change. The majority of Americans support this change and fundamentally our job in Congress is to speak for the people especially in the House of Representatives we are the people's House and we're on the side of the American people in this fight to bring a new generation of leadership to the Congress.

NICIE: And for those who feel that really Nancy Pelosi would be pretty far down on their list of worries. Or Steny Hoyer or any of those cats relative to say President Trump's leadership. Is this really the time for a new person in that role in particular when the republic is so at risk and the rule of law so at risk, is there perhaps some form of compromise that can be reached in terms of transition?

MOULTON: Look absolutely I mean I didn't hear a single American call for a transition. They called for a new generation of leadership. That's the people they sent to Washington. No matter where I went in the country if I said I think it's time for a new generation of leadership in our country and in our party, it got rounds and rounds of applause. I think we have we owe it to the American people to answer that call. So I understand that you know look this is about the establishment versus change and the establishment never gives up their seats willingly. They always have to be pushed out by a new generation of leaders. That's happened many many times in our past and that's what's what we're trying to do today. But the American people are with us. And I think it's easy to forget in the sort of elite Twitter blogosphere or whatever of the liberal elite and whatnot in New York and L.A. that the American people want this change. They called for it in this election. And I think that we ought to answer that call by leading it here in Washington.

NICIE: Emily any thoughts?

CHERNIACK: I'm a big fan of chess. And so I think sometimes in campaigns we only play checkers so we're always about what's going to happen tomorrow but we don't like to think about two years from now. So I think the question is how do we set ourselves up as the Democratic Party to really be strong and healthy party two years from now four years from now. So I think that's a really good question around new generation leadership because what we saw it happened in 2008 when Obama got elected in 2010 there was a total shellacking of the Democratic Party and so I think really not being complacent really making sure that we're listening to the American people about what they want and how we think about leadership and how we think about empowering others to take a step up so New Politics doesn't really get involved in interparty politics. But you know we do care about making sure that people have a place at the table and I think leadership is about being empowered.

NICIE: Do you think that Chuck Schumer should be changed out as well on the Senate leadership?

MOULTON: I mean I don't have a vote on the Senate leadership but I think the entire Democratic party needs new leadership. I mean look at the fact that we have won election after election on the backs of black women and we don't have a single African-American women in leadership anywhere in our party. Just think of.

NICIE: Well you've got three black men who are civil rights icons and.

MOULTON: Black women.

NICIE: No I understand that. But I'm just. Yeah.

MOULTON: In leadership, in leadership. Just think about that. Look at Stacey Abrams down in Georgia. You know she gave an amazing press conference on election night. It came ironically after the press conference from Leader Pelosi and it was amazing the contrast. I mean people look at Stacey Abrams and said that's the future. That's what I want. That's the kind of leadership that we need in our party in our country. So what we're trying to do is usher in that new generation of leadership. And that's what the American people want. I think we ought to answer that call.

NICIE: So back to national service. You've talked in the past Seth about the idea of moving toward a national service program of some kind or some more formal means of encouraging people to seek out time in national service. What's the latest in your thinking on that?

MOULTON: Well I'm a huge supporter because I think that if more Americans especially young Americans had the experience of serving their country of being a part of a project an idea that's bigger than themselves that would make us stronger country. It would bring us together. Many people in Washington talk about how Congress used to be much more effective when there were so many people who were who took part in World War World War II, whether it was they were veterans or maybe they were just working on the home front but they were all part of this big mission for the country. They all felt a common bond and a lot of people don't feel that right now. I found it easier to work across the aisle with fellow veterans because you know that you have that in common. And so I've found partners and in Republicans even some fairly conservative Republicans just because we've we've been fellow veterans of the Iraq War for example when I stood up for Syrian immigrants which was unpopular even here in Massachusetts.

MOULTON: The governor was against me. I mean I was the first member of Congress to come out House or Senate and say this is the right thing to do. The polling was against me. Everyone said no this is too dangerous and everything else. But there is an amazingly courageous Republican from Oklahoma who joined that call because he had been in Iraq with me. He understands what this means for the national security of our country and how important it is to uphold our values. And so we fought together on the issue of Syria and immigration. And it was very powerful because when people looked at us and said you know how is it that Moulton from Massachusetts and Russell from Oklahoma are working together on an issue they must be really have figured something out here. They had made a big difference. I think that's the kind of leadership and collaboration that we need in our politics.

NICIE: One of the things Heather and I have definitely heard so much about in our journey is just the burden that younger people in America are dealing with student loans. So I've been wondering whether some form of national program where you could get some relief on your student debt in exchange for a year or two could make sense. What do you think Emily?

CHERNIACK: Yeah I mean look I think we need a new G.I. bill for the 21st century. And I think the GI bill helps build an economic base and got people access to college back in World War II. And so I think including national service this time but a G.I. bill that would get two years of free college not free college you earn it by doing service right I think that would finally change our country.

NICIE: Another thing we've seen a lot is and we saw in the results both in '16 and '18 is the divide that we don't talk about enough in our country which is really education and the divide between urban successful urban more challenged rural America and I wonder if some form of national service that can put kids together across those lines could really add some value.

MOULTON: I mean absolutely. I mean you know we started this interview by talking about how I got into politics and how critical essential Emily was in that role. When she called me up I didn't really know I mean I knew of her but I didn't really know her and she made this case for me to serve in politics along the same lines in which I served in the Marines and I said no initially. So the question is how did she convince me. Well honestly a big part of it was the fact that she's a service veteran as well. Because she is a veteran of City Year. And although City Year and the Marine Corps had fights in different places. And you know she did a year in Boston and I did the Marine Corps in Iraq. We both had the experience of serving the country of serving this project bigger than ourselves and frankly making a lot of personal sacrifices to do so. I think that's fundamentally one of the key reasons why I listened to Emily and why she ultimately convinced me to serve the country again. So there's just a micro example of how serving the country whether it's in civilian service at home or military service or Peace Corps overseas can really bring young Americans together.

NICIE: There's a great new report which I highly recommend and actually there's a New York Times article about it from a group called More in Common. It's an international group and they've just done an exhaustive study in the U.S. context with a report called Hidden Tribes in U.S. Politics and they describe what they call an exhausted majority so that the really partisan folks in our country are actually a pretty small percentage of the total but that exhaustive majority is A) turned off by the conversation or a shouting match and B) they haven't been plugged in and they're looking for ways to plug in. So I'm wondering if you guys have given that any thought how we would get folks that are really disengaged and turned off to to reconnect and feel better about politics.

MOULTON: I mean that is great question. I think that's the million-dollar question right. I think for us we really try to engage and create space for service alums to just think about a political pathway whether that's running for office or working on campaigns but just really creating a space to share their values and what they believe in and their vision for the country. I think that is just like a first you know kind of gateway step for them to think about it. But yeah I agree it's it's it's important.

NICIE: We've had you know waitresses in coffee shop say politics, it's not really for me. What are your thoughts on that?

MOULTON: I mean this is the challenge right because maybe it's not for them but it affects them. You know politics affects everybody and I think one of the best things to come out of the November 2016 elections when Trump was made president is that it energized so many people and so many people waitresses in coffee shops that actually politics does matter it does matter who we choose as president. And I want to get involved. I've often said that you know that energy that excitement is the single best thing to come out of November 2016. And then I usually ask what's the second best thing to come out of November 2016 and there's silence. And I say I don't know either. So.

NICIE: Well I'll throw out one thing from 2018 just as we wrap it up. And that is something that really was a little head snapping for me which is that Medicaid related expansions passed in five very red states and it made me think so maybe voters in red states actually want more progressive policies. They just don't like left leaning candidates. And maybe there's some way we can figure this out because they want the actual policies that we tend to favor. What are your thoughts?

MOULTON: I think that's right. I mean you asked a lot of questions about this leadership battle in the House and I mean I've gotten assaulted on Twitter you know from the liberal elites in New York and L.A. but I can't tell you the calls that I've gotten from people in Chicago from people in Ohio from people in South Carolina who are like look Democrats are with you on this. So there is this problem that we have in our party where we tend to listen to the extremes on both sides. It's true with Republicans as well. You know you hear the far right talking in the in our in our party you hear the far left. But if we could communicate the values and principles and policies of our party in a way that's not coming across as liberal elite but coming across as you know we're Americans too and we want to bring everybody together. I think ultimately we'll be more successful as Democrats in my case and ultimately as Americans.

NICIE: So since we recorded our interview, Moulton held a town hall in his district and here's a little sound from WBZ TV of how that went.

[Town Hall]

NICIE: Meanwhile, Pelosi has been meeting with new members, and the key sub caucuses to bargain for their backing and she appears to have solidified her base of support. Marcia Fudge decided not to run against her and no other challenger has yet emerged. Pelosi also gave an interview to The New York Times magazine during which she ate an ice cream sundae and gave them this quote. "No one gives you power. You have to take it from them." The magazine put her on the cover seated in a power pose in an orange pant suit the color she wants you to know of the gun safety movement. The caucus vote which will use a secret ballot is scheduled for November 28. And yet change is in the air. The average age of a newly elected member is 48 this year, a full decade below the current Congress. Younger members, rising stars like Cheri Bustos, Hakeem Jeffries and even Member elect Chrissy Houlahan, a Serve America candidate herself, are running for junior leadership posts. And without making herself a lame duck, Pelosi has effectively acknowledged the need for a transition to new leadership.

NICIE: Meanwhile Seth Moulton may have lost this fight but he continues to set himself apart both as someone who's not afraid to go against the party line and as someone who can take the heat. He can't be labeled as just another liberal Democrat from Massachusetts. And back to our desire for servant leaders who will put country over party, we will surely follow these newly elected members with service backgrounds to see how they operate. Can they make a difference in the tone and substance of politics on the Hill? Should we consider a national service program in America? How do we make sure that concepts like duty, sacrifice and caring for others are being lived out in practice every day by as many Americans as possible in daily life and in our politics? All important questions. Next week we'll try to answer the question new members are surely asking: I won! Now what? We'll do that with David King. He runs the orientation program for new members of Congress at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and King has some surprising advice for citizens too. One last reminder please please fill out our listener survey. Look for the link on themidpod.com, on Twitter and on Facebook. Thanks for listening and see you next week.

Eunice Panetta